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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 21 January, 2003, 17:55 GMT
Secondary students' paths diverge

It is barely a decade since England's first national curriculum was introduced with 10, largely traditional subjects compulsory for all aged 11 to 16.

These have since been steadily whittled away. The latest to go is now modern foreign languages. ICT has also been served notice of eviction.

For 14 to 16 year olds, this leaves the once proud national curriculum shorn to the compulsory core of just maths, English and science. Even the science can be reduced to a single course in "applied science".

Oddly enough, this is exactly the national curriculum the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher originally wanted until she was out-manoeuvred by her education secretary Kenneth Baker.

European models

Once Tuesday's plans are implemented, probably from September 2004, students will face a vital fork in their education pathway at the age of 14.

As in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and France, from there on there will be clearer, separate academic or vocational pathways.

We can now see a new shape emerging for school education, replacing the simple 5 to 11 and 11 to 16 phases.

Up to age 11, the national curriculum has also largely disappeared, replaced by a curriculum dominated by "numeracy" and "literacy".

The early secondary years - 11 to 14 - remain as the last bastion of the general, broad, academic curriculum.

Vocational vs. academic

Then a new phase - from 14 to 19 - will mark out separate pathways leading either to work, two-year vocational foundation degrees or traditional three- or four-year academic degrees.

The big test will be whether England can manage what it has never achieved before: namely, parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications.

The aim is to drop separate labels, so pupils can take GCSEs in subjects such as engineering or leisure and tourism.

The government hopes that vocational courses won't just be for those planning to go into job-training at 16, although they are important to these plans.

Job for colleges

They hope many on the vocational route will go on into higher education creating the expansion - and broadening of participation - planned for the rest of the decade.

They envisage most university growth coming through sub-degree courses or foundation degrees.

The aim is twofold: economic benefits from improving the country's skills base, and social benefits from re-motivating those teenagers who see little for themselves in pursuing academic subjects.

For these to be met, there will have to be quality provision for vocational routes through schools, colleges and workplaces.

Further education colleges, in particular, face a very big challenge. Now we can see why they got a bigger than expected financial settlement earlier this year.


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.


Main proposals

Other changes

Analysis: Mike Baker
See also:

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